How China, Russia and the US Compete Over Control in Africa

February 3, 2023

In the shadows of the Ukraine war, China, Russia and the United States scramble for resources and political influence in Africa.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left 3) walks past the honor guard during an official welcome prior to a meeting with South Africa. Photo by Anadolu Images


isiting African countries in January 2023, top Chinese and United States officials were eager to make one big point; we are not competing to control Africa.

China’s new foreign minister Qin Gang told reporters in Ethiopia during his five-country tour that Africa was not a battleground for influence.

“Africa should be a big stage for international cooperation, not an arena for major-force rivalry,” Qin said in Addis Ababa, where he cut ribbons at the new China-built headquarters of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kicking off her own tour of Africa, Janet Yellen, the U.S. Secretary of Treasury, also tried to convince her hosts that she was not here to compete. “This is not competition with China — we want to deepen our engagement with Africa,” Yellen said.

Visits among rivalries

But the Africa visits came as the rivalries escalate between China and the U.S. over the Ukraine war and for control of commodity supplies. There is no doubt that the race to win Africa over is on. What is in doubt, however, is whether African governments themselves are ready to gain from it.

Yellen touched down in Zambia just a day before Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, arrived in South Africa to start his own visit to the continent. On the day that Yellen arrived in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, she couldn’t have missed the signs of Chinese influence. Hours after her arrival, a bell chimed to mark the Chinese New Year at the city’s Shaolin Temple Cultural Centre, another sign of Chinese presence.

Yellen’s trip was the first of what will be a series of high-level U.S. visits to Africa this year by President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, trade representative Katherine Tai, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

33-year-old Chinese tradition

China, on the other hand, is trying to stay a step ahead of the U.S. Qin’s visit is a continued 33-year-old tradition of Chinese foreign ministers making Africa their first foreign destination each year. While the U.S. for years stuck to its old channels of cooperation – aid and security – China grew its trade with Africa four times that of the U.S.

Now, the geopolitical battles sparked by the Ukraine war, and the economic battle to secure the commodities crucial to energy supply, are playing out in Africa. One such battlefield is in the battery metals mineral resources of Southern Africa.

In December, the U.S. signed an agreement with Zambia and its northern neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo, to mine cobalt in the Congo, which accounts for 70% of the world’s supply of the battery mineral, and copper in Zambia, one of the world’s largest copper producers.

Next door to Zambia, in Zimbabwe, three large Chinese lithium miners – Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, Chengxin and Sinomine – are investing in new processing plants, worth over $600 million combined. China currently controls the bulk of the battery supply chain, from lithium processing to batteries, a grip that the US is working hard to loosen. It’s a war that will also be fought in Africa.

Africa wants quick wins

What African countries want most are large investments that can get off the ground quickly. At the U.S. Africa Leadership Summit in Washington, the U.S. pledged $55 billion in investment for Africa. While China pledged $40 billion at the 2021 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the U.S. package includes existing pledges, and depends on approval from the U.S. Congress within the next two years.

China has less of that red tape. The U.S. Africa Summit pledged to invest over $350 million into technology for all of Africa. In comparison, in Angola, Qin oversaw the signing of a broadband rollout deal worth $249 million – for Angola alone. He also toured Huawei’s new $80 million technology park in the capital, Luanda. Many African leaders want similar deals of their own.

It is a race for resources and political influence, in the shadows of the Ukraine war. What more can Africa get out of all this?

As Alexander Rusero, Research Fellow with the Institute for Pan African Thought at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, told Politics Today, “The visits have nothing to do with Africa nor the African states, but everything to do with the Global North states who cannot navigate against the tide, be it war, be it food supply or energy supply, without Africa in the equation.”

The trick now, for African economies, is to get what they can. Sadly, for Africa, its leaders have historically negotiated from weakness, giving away far too much and gaining little. Now, for a change, Africa has some leverage.

Politically, the rivalries give Africa bargaining power in its campaign for United Nations Security Council reforms. Economically, there are opportunities for better long-term investment.

Angola’s case points to the opportunities on the table. The country already owes more to China than any other African country, with debts of over $20 billion, and opened talks to restructure its debt in 2020. Yet, the $249 million broadband agreement came with concessionary terms; a maturity period of up to 20 years and, unlike many of its previous Chinese loans, not backed by oil, according to Angola’s Finance Minister Vera Daves.

At a time that African countries fear that China is scaling back on its Belt and Road Initiative, the more aggressive rivalry between major powers also provides an opening to press China to keep its checkbook open.

Russia, BRICS and Africa

In South Africa, Russia’s Lavrov and South Africa’s international cooperation minister Naledi Pandor discussed economic links. BRICS, the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa grouping currently headed by South Africa, has started lending under its New Development Bank. This has many African nations sitting up with anticipation.

Russia needs the support of Africa at the UN General Assembly. Yet, Russia invests very little in Africa, making up just one per cent of foreign direct investment into the continent, according to UNCTAD data. Previous Russian pledges of investments in oil and gas and fertilizer have never happened. This July, Russia hosts the Russia-Africa Summit in Saint Petersburg. It will be a chance for African leaders to squeeze more out of Russia, while they still can.

After neglecting Africa for so many years, America’s sudden friendliness is a hard sell for many in Africa. But, in this fight among powerful nations, Africa must make sure that everything is a hard sell for China and Russia too. The big countries are all in it for themselves. Africa should be too.

Ranga is a journalist based in Zimbabwe, where he has covered economic issues across Africa for over 20 years. He has worked in corporate communications in technology and mining. He is co-founder of newZWire, a Zimbabwean economic news and analysis platform. He has written for and contributed commentary to international media, including The Guardian and BBC.